Everyday Type

Everyday Type

The Bygone Virtuosos, or Linotype: A Review

March 8, 2012

A theater with empty seats

Like many exciting and inpsiring projects in the design community these days, Linotype: In Search of the Eighth Wonder of the World began as a Kickstarter project. Director Doug Wilson was successfully funded and went on to make the 78-minute documentary about the Linotype typesetting machine.

Wilson’s debut film does a wonderful job in its opening minutes of creating the historical and aesthetic backdrop for the machine. Through compelling charts and infographics, you get a definite sense of how many attempts were made at a machine that could speed up hand compositing, thus multiplying the fortunes of newspaper and book publishers.

The viewer likewise gets a sense of the extreme complexity of the machine. Measuring an overwhelming 7 feet tall and weighing in at several hundred pounds, the Linotype is a behemoth, and the viewer is awestruck as the operators describe the remarkably complex system of levers, wheels, and molten lead. Here, the first human element of the movie comes to light: the co-mingled fear and respect the linotype operators have for the machine.

Judging by the bearded and bespectacled men and sensible skirt-wearing women in attendance at a recent Seattle screening, many were approaching the film as a modern designers or typography lovers. For this demographic, one of the more thought provoking elements of the film is the way it illustrates that linotype operators were not just the midcentury equivalent of our current hipsters. These people were working class artisans, not the bohemian elite. And yet the care they invested in their craft was remarkable. As one historian put it, “These were talented, artistic people posing as industrial workers in coveralls.” These men (and a few women) were the proletariat virtuosos of a bygone era.

Unlike many dramas you’d watch unfold at a movie theater, you know how this one ends: with the demise of a machine that, like all machines, meets its end and is made obsolete by its successor, in this case, photo-typesetting. And yet where the film shines is the sense of nostalgia it evokes in you as you watch the archival footage of the machines being dismantled in the very context in which they were once considered irreplacable. As a lover of type, as a human being, it tugs on your hearstrings.

Linotype operators were the proletariat virtuosos of a bygone era.

Overall, type designers, typographers, and graphic designers alike would be well served to learn what they can about these machines before the thousand or so that remain are sold for scrap. And as we complain about type rendering on the web or Photoshop crashes, it behooves us to recall and learn from the constraints that type designers, compositors, and layout artists dealt with in a time before our own.

Linotype: In Search of the Eighth Wonder of the World debuted on February 3rd. Check the screenings page for an event near you.